The Elephant in the Room, at Gourdon in Burgundy

Speaker: Professor John Osborne (Research Professor and Dean Emeritus, Carleton University, Ottawa and Honorary Research Fellow, The Courtauld Institute of Art)

This talk explores the fragmentary twelfth-century mural depicting an elephant, situated in the lowermost zone, or dado, of the choir wall in the church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption at Gourdon, a small village in the Charolais district of Burgundy. This painting is unique in France, but its presence has attracted little attention, let alone any further consideration of its meaning and function. Some light can perhaps be shed on these issues by considering the mural in the larger context of dado imagery in western Europe in the central Middle Ages, as well as through an exploration of how medieval audiences knew about and understood elephants. Using texts such as the Bestiary, in which elephants are associated with the virtues of modesty and chastity, it will be proposed that the Gourdon elephant was intended to remind viewers of the theology underlying the selection of Mary, who is depicted receiving the archangel Gabriel’s greeting in a depiction of the Annunciation placed directly above. 

John Osborne is a cultural historian of the early medieval Mediterranean, with a specific interest in the material culture of the cities of Rome and Venice.  He has also written more broadly on the topography of medieval Rome, saints’ cults, cultural transmission between western Europe and Byzantium, the Roman catacombs, and Counter-Reformation interest in Early Christian and medieval antiquities.  Following a “conversion” experience in Venice in the summer of 1970, he pursued a B.A. in art history at Carleton, followed by an interdisciplinary Master’s in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.  His doctoral thesis at the University of London (Courtauld Institute of Art) examined the early medieval paintings in the excavated “lower church” of San Clemente, Rome.  Subsequently he has spent part of every year in Rome, based at The British School, which in 2006 appointed him as an Honorary Fellow.  He taught at the University of Victoria (1979-2001), and Queen’s University (2001-2005), before returning to Carleton in 2005 as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Organised by Dr Tom Nickson